Coffee Break #35



A wargame simulates what happens beyond politics and focus on what happens by other means. The war. The command in battles. The resolution of combat.

Hethwill Wargames


One of the recent interviews I’ve had the pleasure to hear was with Philip Sabin. Yes, that Phil Sabin, Dr. and having heard it a few times, less than half a dozen but more than three, It felt odd some of the questions made by one of the hosts. I will not confront the genuine interest behind those questions but I found out that the admirable work and foundations that brought Dr. Sabin to both worlds of wargaming ( professional and leisure ) are uncompromisingly unaffected by the representation – counters, miniatures, blocks – and reflect the true difference between both which transpired from his most excellent discourse that there is a clear distinction between the leisure and the professional although there’s always been a cross over ( some of his commercial designs are a perfect example ).

Even if you are not interested in ancient military history hobby wargaming this is a treasure of ideas, methods and a disconcerting approach of how to relate research and hobby.

What left me a bit with the itches was the continuous search for a validating answer from Dr. Sabin – which in good honesty he never gave. Instead he demonstrated by a most correct explanation the why no professional would play the elaborate and over complicated with excess of information hobby wargames, nor a professional analysis simulation would interest the commercial leisure audience. It doesn’t take much to understand that both aims are different and a general has no time to dedicate to replaying Cannae using Berg’s simulations ( a favourite of Sabin’s if you read his books ) and a hobbyist has little interest in a statistical analytical exercise with a specific focus – such as simulating a city evacuation procedures while acting liaison between the civilian and military.

A very dear friend of mine works in social field with extreme situations and they conduct “wargames” all the time, especially when new members join the team. It is part of the curriculum at university to participate in those that relate to the field of study but we don’t name them “wargames” but rather “roleplay” and we do everyday in our jobs when we want to prepare future scenarios. ( Note: I used wargames term in reference to “exercise” in context for a simulated situation but aiming for a realistic solution ).

This is not leisure wargaming and designing a commercial game about social support to conflict mass migrations while dealing with the governments is all fine and well but it will not be … a wargame. Not combat focused. And it might have some interest for some people including wargames fans but simply wouldn’t fall into the category.

A simulation game designed to create a better understanding
of the problems of refugees

Political history in games has always existed and social themes in games has always existed and there’s more games being published every week with a firm foundation in history, at the very high level of nations organization dealing with numerous types of challenges, but these are not wargames in the leisure sense but are perfectly acceptable in a professional environment, as clearly exposed.


Validation, like that during the interview, already exists and the cross over happens all the time, forcing the subject to a response to confirm an already disputable result from the start is not a honest thing, as the methods of delivery are what makes and breaks the proposal and one must only trust some hobby statistics to understand how commercial viability requires a different set of tools.

Popular exercises of mind dexterity, outmanoeuvring, and initiative, all aiming to win the game or a part of it, as some games are composed of several rounds – like a war is composed of several battles, save some oddities.


The common games of cards found all across Europe and especially the types found in France and Italian and Iberian Peninsulas give a sense of “duels”. Many are to be played in secrecy, with both players in team not allowed to talk, but will find ways of signalling moves or when the time is right to swing the game in their favour. The different powers – diamonds, clubs, hearts, swords – may well represent different factions inside a court, they simulate conflict but do not clearly simulate war and are immensely popular almost par with dominoes when we consider the same geographical regions.

Little wonder that cards resemble more a battle than chess does as some author, which I am not a great deal fan of, well put in his work. There’s the preparation of the sequence of attack, the follow up support, and a counter attack when initiative is lost. All in secret as much as possible, for intelligence is a part of it and taking mental notes of what cards have been played by each opponent as well as the team is a good stratagem.

But is not a wargame. It is a game with mechanisms that can be used to game war.


The wargame does not have to be a complex and ultra detailed order of battle like many commercial games like to do and it can be as simple as a game of cards but the focus is the combat resolution, the achieving victory in battle, the winning the war in the field.

Which brings me back to the big bang and the big crunch of Kriegsspiel.

There’s two levels of exercises as conducted by the compilers of those rules – note: they were written as professional wargames.

One was a high level exercise, speaking freely about what superiors were doing wrong or right, riding a field, discussing where to build forts and which positions would be more advantageous for the enemy in the case of a march.

Then the low level, with maps and pieces to simulate a battle according to the conditions as represented in the high level exercise and provide demonstration of where and why and when the gaps in the planning were.

This is true validation and required two levels of wargaming. This is exactly what the questions in the interview made by the other host were very aimed at and from a different perspective. How to translate, investigate and transpose that “field” experience ( let’s call it historical research in our hobby side of things ) to a working model.

Once we would reach at the table we would be given roles to play ( *wink* ) that most probably, and for a most complete satisfaction in the results, shuffled the participants around. Generals would play Supply Officers, Lieutenants would act Colonels and all the similar. This would bring fresh ideas, unexpected results and above all a synergy between the different levels of command outside the game which would improve real world implementations ( no wonder many team building exercises still use games as method ).


Being about History does not make a wargame. Being about conflict and combat resolution does and that includes all the fantasy realms and out-worldly adventures.

When a wargame system is so thoroughly invested by the Umpire ( game master ) it gains a life of its own. This is when the hobby shines. Tony Bath, Dave Anderson and others understood this concept earlier one and all took inspiration on the professional exercises to make something worthy of wargaming history.

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